BELFAST – What looked like a potentially close-fought contest between the Ulster Rockets and DCU Mercy in the opening week of the Nivea Women’s Super League was unpredictably all but over before the half, with DCU cruising to an eventual 52-69 victory.
That both teams had to play without their newest American imports due to residency rules leant the game a slightly surreal quality and the feeling that Saturday’s encounter was no true indicator of where either team will be in a few months’ time.
Moreover, the Rockets went in to the game at De La Salle without the combined experience of three likely starters: Mairead McNally, Noleen Lennon and Caroline Stewart. With the addition of these three, and the arrival of former UWIC forward Meagan Hoffman in the DCU starting line-up in the coming months, both teams should expect to see improvements.
For DCU, last season’s league and cup runners-up who had four debutants on show in Belfast, another tilt at the silverware seems a realistic target based on the ruthlessness with which they opened this game. The visitors ran up a fourteen point lead in the first quarter as they capitalised on the Rockets’ lack of early intensity.
The Rocket’s started slowly, their 2-3 zone not quite aggressive enough in pressuring the ball on top, nor alert enough to the movements of the DCU players dropping deep to the baseline behind them, and the visitors scored almost at will, racking up an impressive 27 points for the quarter.
Offensively, the Rockets found some success in the form of Fionnuala Toner and Meghan Houlihan inside, and managed to get to the free-throw line on a couple of occasions late in the quarter. However, while their 2-3 shape should have provided opportunities for an organised fast-break attack, the Rockets were slow out of the back court preferring to dribble and slow the play, much to their detriment.
DCU played an aggressive brand of man-to-man defence and found themselves in the team-fouls penalty in all four quarters, but Coach Mark Ingle should not be unduly concerned as the intensity of their efforts was the key to their success.
In a passage of play that typified the game, DCU’s 5’9 guard and eventual top scorer, Sarah Woods sank a pull-up jump shot with less than 30 seconds to play in the first quarter. Then, on the next play, her team’s tough defence forced a fourth consecutive turnover from the hosts. As PG Lindsey Peat broke with the ball from the turnover, Woods faded to the wide-open weak side to knock down the three-pointer and knock the wind out of the Rockets with seconds on the clock.
The introduction of Aisling Murray in the second quarter gave the Rockets a brief injection of pace and urgency on the break, but things soon slowed down again with energetic and experienced guard under-used in the point-guard stakes.
DCU’s tough defensive play continued to stifle the Rockets’ attack, holding them scoreless for the first twelve possessions of the second quarter. The home team failed to make any impact in the key, instead settling for outside shots that came to little, while DCU’s 6’0 post, Ailish McLaughlin posed a continual threat on the other end.
With 4:36 to play in the half, Coach Breda Dick called time-out to switch her own team’s defence to man. The change in defensive approach permeated her team’s offensive play too, and they started to look more dynamic. Again, Fionnuala Toner was at the heart of most of the Rockets’ brighter play.
In a purple spell for the hosts, Toner managed to find Ciara O’Neill wide open on the left side from a dribble penetration before feeding Helena Fairbairn for the score on an intelligent baseline pick-and-roll play. She soon added a basket of her own on baseline spin and fade, before stealing the ball on the subsequent defensive play.
When Niamh Toner drove hard to the basket late in the quarter and completed the three-point play from the FT line, the deficit was cut to thirteen and things seemed to be looking up for the Rockets. However, as with the end of the first quarter, DCU fired back immediately with a quick three-pointer on the break and the Dubliners went in 22-39 up at half-time.
The restart saw a concerted effort by the Rockets to get themselves back in the game. Their best play came when they pushed the tempo on offence and looked to trap aggressively on defence, although not often enough.
The third period brought a wider contribution from the Rockets squad with Fionnuala Toner, Niamh Toner, Helena Fairbairn and Meghan Houlihan all finding the target, the highlight coming when Houlihan faked Hoffman on the left side before sinking a one-dribble pull-up shot to shrink the deficit to just nine points.
With the visitors’ lead cut to single figures for the first time, and only forty seconds left in the quarter, it was starting to look like they had a game on their hands. However, like the previous two quarters, when things got close, DCU’s offence found a quick answer. This time it was Sarah Woods who pulled up on the fast break in the last ten seconds, her bank shot stretching DCU’s lead back to eleven.
Woods’ rapid response must have had some psychological effect on the Rockets players, particularly after their valiant efforts in the third quarter, because they opened the fourth with eight successive scoreless possessions.
Again it was Woods to draw first blood, and an impressive score it was, facing her defender up and kissing it in off the glass. The Rockets can be commended for their defensive persistence in the early part of the final period but going into the last seven minutes of play, the task suddenly took on a Herculean aspect yet again.
Lindsay Peat stepped up to the top of the arc on a reverse ball and, with Woods wide open and calling from the corner, drained the triple. Eighteen point lead. On the very next play, however, Peat did what all good point guards do: the selfless deed. Penetrating the top of the key and drawing the help defender up from the baseline, Peat fed the previously neglected Woods the deftest of passes for a short baseline jump shot.
With 6:42 to play, and the Rockets suddenly finding themselves behind by eighteen again, Coach Dick called for the 2-3 zone again, seeking some defensive solidity. Mental fatigue soon played its part, however, as the home team fixed its eyes on the ball and got caught napping when Peat again found Woods, this time on a back door cut to the hoop.
Fionnuala Toner produced a late crowd-pleasing play in the last three minutes when she intercepted a loose pass and went coast-to-coast for a lay-up, taking her personal points total to twenty.
With the lead now at an insurmountable twenty-three points, Ingle took Sarah Woods out of the game for the last time, a sure sign that DCU Head Coach felt the job was done. Woods top scored with twenty-five points and was undoubtedly the game’s MVP.
DCU host the Liffey Celtics this coming Sunday, while the Rockets next play Team Montenotte in Cork on November 3.